Boris Johnson ‘more Chamberlain than Churchill’ over Ukraine, warns senior Tory

Exclusive: Defence committee chair Tobias Ellwood blasts lack of strategic thinking in No 10

Biden tells US citizens to leave Ukraine immediately as fears of Russian invasion persist

Boris Johnson’s response to Russian aggression against Ukraine has been “more Chamberlain than Churchill”, the Conservative chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee has told The Independent.

Tobias Ellwood said that the recent visits of foreign secretary Liz Truss to Moscow and the prime minister to Poland were “completely” designed to distract from the Partygate scandal in London and played into Vladimir Putin’s hands by putting him at the centre of international attention.

In the absence of leadership on Ukraine from Washington, it fell to the UK to fill the vacuum, but Mr Johnson had shown no appetite to think about the wider challenge facing the west, said Mr Ellwood.

“We have entered an era of epic change in the world and we have our heads in the sand,” he told The Independent.

A former soldier who served as a minister in both the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence under David Cameron and Theresa May, Mr Ellwood said that the Johnson administration lacked senior figures thinking strategically inside No 10 about the security of Europe.

“We are making a lot of noise, but there’s no strategy,” he said. “Ultimately, we are looking more like Chamberlain than Churchill and not appreciating the bigger picture.

“If we don’t have the strategists – as Churchill had [first Viscount] Alanbrooke – in No 10, pointing out the wider dangers on the horizon, then our adversaries will take advantage of the internal chaos. That is what’s happening now.

“We don’t have a comprehensive strategy on Russia. Historically, when America absents itself form the international stage in terms of political leadership – as it is doing now over Ukraine – Britain steps forward, but we are unable to do that now.”

Mr Ellwood said that Ms Truss’s visit to Moscow on Thursday – which Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov afterwards described as being like “talking to a deaf person” – had been a “humiliation”.

“Lavrov is a wily operator and he absolutely humiliated Liz Truss,” said the Bournemouth East MP. “She should never have gone. If you have no cards to play, no leverage, no hard power, no alliance behind you to alter Russia’s behaviour, what can you gain from going to Russia?

“All it does is make Putin feel important, which is something he really wants.”

Mr Ellwood said that the tensions over Ukraine were part of a broader economic and military pivot by Putin towards China, which necessitates persuading the Russian population that Europe and the west are an enemy with aggressive intentions towards them.

Reliance on sanctions to be imposed in response to an invasion would merely reinforce this impression, he warned.

Instead, he suggested that the UK should be leading calls for a division of Nato troops to be stationed inside Ukraine itself to make President Putin “think again” about infringing on its territory.

While President Joe Biden was reluctant to take the political lead on the issue, the US would be ready to pile in with military contributions if such a move was seen to be led from Europe, he said.

“The consequences of an invasion, both on food prices because of the colossal grain exports and on oil and gas prices, will have a ripple effect right across Europe to the UK and beyond, potentially triggering another global economic recession,” warned Mr Ellwood.

“These are bigger considerations which are simply not being discussed around the table at No 10,” he said. “They go to the core argument of No 10’s capability as government headquarters to be able effectively to digest the threats and respond to them. There is an absence of appetite to even look into these things.

“There is an expectation that Britain will step forward when others hesitate and instead we are hesitating. If we look at all impressive it is only because other Nato countries are doing less.”

In response to Mr Ellwood’s comments, a government spokesperson said: “The prime minister has been deeply engaged on this issue throughout, and was one of the first world leaders to raise concerns about Russian hostilities in a speech at Mansion House in November, along with Nord Stream 2.

“Any further invasion of Ukraine would have massive consequences and incur severe costs. We are preparing an unprecedented package of coordinated sanctions with our international partners that will mean those who share responsibility for Russia’s actions will face a heavy cost.

“We have been clear Russia needs to de-escalate, withdraw its forces from the border and pursue a diplomatic path, as Nato allies have offered.”

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